By Lauren Fonville
We’ve been fans of Drunk History’s slurred, comedic take on American history and it’s slightly-off period costumes since its early days at a web series on FunnyorDie.com. Now the show created by host Derek Waters and director Jeremy Konner is finally getting a run as a full series airing Tuesdays at 10 pm on Comedy Central.
Who better than costume designer Christina Mongini to bring the show’s inebriated versions of events like Watergate and the Battle of the Alamo to life? The comedy vet has earned her chops as the costume designer for HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and is about to go into production on season five of The League on FX.
We sat down with Christina to discuss Drunk History’s quirky aesthetic; its panoply of guest stars including Jack Black, Dave Grohl, Lisa Bonet, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, and Kristen Wiig; and the particular challenges of costuming comedy.
Frocktalk: We’re so excited to see Drunk History as its own TV series. Did you also design the costumes for the Funny or Die web series?
CM: No, I came on to do the Comedy Central series. I loved the web series, too. It took me by surprise how much I loved doing this show. It actually it gave me new life.
We got to be so creative and we did so many arts and crafts. You don’t have a huge budget, especially on half-hour comedies. It’s just what it is.
Frocktalk: The show has a very distinct look. It seems the period costumes aren’t 100% accurate by design.
CM: Derek [Waters] and Jeremy [Konner] wanted it to still have a sketch-comedy, DIY look, where certain things are kind of wrong. A character might be wearing Nike hightops, but he’s in Colonial times. Finding that balance was sort of daunting. We want to maintain the aesthetic of that, but where is the line?
Frocktalk: Right. It works well with the show’s drunken aesthetic, but the costumes don’t look too amateurish.
CM: Yes, it definitely works with the show, which has this drunken, sloppy tone. It’s a fine line. Honestly, it kept me up at night at first. I remember talking to Derek and Jeremy about that. I think at first they thought, “Here’s a costume designer who wants to do kind of grand thing.”
They are amazing. They’re so creative, happy and positive. They were really accepting and excited. We sort of had to find it as we did it.
And my crew was unbelievable. My creative team are [key costumers] Jill Lucas and Jamie Redwood. I need to give them their props. I couldn’t have done it without them.
As designers, we’re only as strong as our crew.
Frocktalk: It must’ve been quite a challenge to cover so many different time periods at once.
CM: The show has seven episodes with three drunk stories per episode, so that’s 21 stories. It was like shooting a mini-movie every day in a different time period.
CM: It was a lot and fast and we were making things as we were shooting. It was like arts and crafts every day and you usually don’t get to do that, actually being able to create stuff.
Frocktalk: What were some of the costumes you created?
CM: The Battle of the Alamo was a big one. We rented the General’s costume and costumes for a few people up front and then we mocked-up the rest of the army. We used blue Dickies shirts with the collars turned up and made white plastic bandoliers. We topsticked felt and glued the buttons on. If you really look at it, you can kind of see it. But from afar it all blends in.
There is also scene with Mary Todd Lincoln at Lincoln’s deathbed. We took a 1970’s polyester blouse that had the right silhouette and tucked it into her skirt. Then added a lacy piece of fabric, crossed it over her, and tucked it in to make a shawl.
We just worked these things. That was the fun part. It was about manipulating a few elements to create a silhouette.
There’s one story that has to do with the KKK. We made the KKK robes out of sheets. Then we used the same sheets for everything. We’d cut them up and make aprons; we made neckerchiefs for the Wild West. It was an ongoing joke. The scene might be about Lewis and Clark, but you’re going to see a piece of the KKK sheets.
Frocktalk: That’s brilliant!
CM: Why not? We have the fabric, let’s use it!
Frocktalk: You didn’t have keep continuity for reshoots? What would you do if production wanted to go back and re-shoot the KKK scene after you had cut up the sheets?
CM: We were shooting one story a day and we weren’t really going to be going back to them. We didn’t have the time or the manpower to work how we’d normally shoot a show. In a way, it was great, that helped us. We knew once something was done, we could some of the costumes on someone else in another era. It was part of the freedom.
Frocktalk: You also did a great job of recreating iconic costumes that everyone knows. Like Jack Black’s Elvis jumpsuit in the first episode, “Washington D.C.” How did you reproduce that?
CM: My amazing team found the jumpsuit. We found the belt and that shirt was something I’ve had in my kit forever. We glued buttons onto the coat and tucked in to make it look like a cape.
The boots he wore were in literally everything we shot. We would joke, “Go get the Elvis boots! The Elvis boots will fit him!” I’m sure that coat was used again. We’d take the buttons off and make it different coat.
Frocktalk: I love it. It’s like guerilla costuming.
CM: It was super guerilla costuming. In fact, we called it that. I give Derek and Jeremy a lot of credit. They created this environment that was only positive and fun. It made everybody else have fun with it.
Because it was challenging. It was fast with a big volume of people and there wasn’t a lot of time or money. It was really hard, but everybody loved it.
Let’s face it; all of those elements come into play in the final outcome of how something looks. Are people happy on set? That’s going to show up. The people who worked with me felt invested in the show. They were having fun with it so they reached down and pulled up their creativity.
Frocktalk: Was it difficult working with a big cast and so many guest stars?
CM: Our ensemble cast was super fun. Again, everybody was happy and talented. It’s comedy, so already you have this environment where you’re just laughing all day. That really does make a difference.
Then we’d have these amazing guest stars come in. Everybody who came to the show really wanted to be there. They were all on board and they got it. We were hot gluing and safety pinning and everyone was just cool with it.
I think it was refreshing for everybody involved. It was sort of like getting back to the basics of why we are in this business.
Frocktalk: It sounds like it really refreshed you as a creative artist, too.
CM: It did. It rejuvenated me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I always think I’m lucky to do this job. But this was even more. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I just got to do that!”
Frocktalk: Who were some of your favorite guest actors on the show?
CM: Lisa Bonet came in with a huge bag full of beautiful Victorian blouses and boots with hook-and-eye closures. So, we ended up using some of her pieces with ours. That was really fun. She was amazing. She plays Mary Ellen Pleasant.
I like to be collaborative. I don’t like to separate. It’s their character and we’re going to do this together. You can see it on an actor’s face when he comes to set and he doesn’t like what he’s wearing. That is not okay. All of the actors came in excited and with ideas within the parameters of what we had. It was fun in that way.
The Wilson brothers also came in as the Kellogg Brothers. That was really fun watching their dynamic on set.
Everybody was just down with it and happy to be there. It is hard for me to choose. Obviously, Dave Grohl was something.
Frocktalk: I’d be freaking out.
CM: He’s the nicest. He’s super cool. I mean, he’s Dave Grohl!
I’ve been lucky with the comedy shows I’ve done. Everybody who comes to those shows really wants to be there. That is a nice, added perk.
Frocktalk: How much prep time did you have?
CM: We had two or three weeks of prep. At the same time, casting is always last minute. We had the time to set up and organize and be really ready to jump in. The drunk narrations had already been filmed, so we knew all of the stories and all of the eras ahead of time. We weren’t waiting for scripts; that was helpful. It was fast and furious and amazing.
Frocktalk: Did you do a lot of research during pre-production?
CM: [Co-producer] Seth Weitberg was the researcher. So, all of the research was done for us. It was great because that’s such a time-consuming process.
Every story had a photo board. It was good to have those boards and be saturated with visuals as we were pulling costumes. We’d stare at them throughout the run. I definitely needed checking. Sometimes I’d be pulling something and Jamie would say, “That’s a little bit more 1800’s, that’s not Patty Hearst.” It was a lot to keep track of, but we had amazing research, which was gold.
Frocktalk: What was your favorite story to design?
CM: Oh my God, I don’t think I can pick a favorite. They were all such self-contained, little pockets of rad.
The Patty Hearst story was really fun. Kristen Wiig plays her. Her main captor, the head of the SLA, is wearing a grey, floppy ‘70s hat, which is what he actually wore during the bank robbery. That hat lives in my closet. I wear in the summer.
Frocktalk: You also design Curb Your Enthusiasm and The League. Do you think designing for comedy different than designing for drama?
CM: I feel like comedy lends itself to a little more creativity. Although that depends on the project, obviously.
I like it because I end up with these crazy characters like Curb’s Susie Greene—our fittings are the most fun ever. And on The League, I get to dress Andre, which is another whole bag of crazy fun.
I feel really lucky that I get to do comedy. I love it. You can cover the gamut. I get the straightforward characters and I get the more colorful characters. That, for me, is perfect.
Doing Drunk History really solidified how much I love working in comedy. Our hours are long and it’s labor-intensive and it’s stressful. We love what we do, but that is there. I think when you get to laugh at work it really does help.
Frocktalk: Comedy has its challenges, too. Curb is almost entirely improvised. Do you have to keep a lot of stuff on the wardrobe trailer in case Larry David or another actor or director suddenly requests a crazy piece of costuming while you’re shooting?
CM: That is exactly it. Yes, you have to be ready. That’s the beauty of working in this environment. The people are creatively, hilariously brilliant. They’re always coming up with things. So, I have to have a huge stockpile of clothing.
When those last-minute things arise, you could say, “I didn’t have enough notice so I don’t have it.” But you want to have it. You want to work it out and you want it to be great. You want to pull it off. I’ve just found that having a lot of my own stuff allows me to do that.
As soon as I could drive in high school I was thrift storing. I still have pieces from that time. I keep a lot of stock on the truck that is just weird. I have a t-shirt with embroidered roller skates on it. I haven’t used it yet, but I know I’m going to use it. Consequently, we travel heavy.
Frocktalk: When you were thrifting in high school, was that the first inkling that you were going to become a costume designer?
CM: I loved old movies growing up. It was the facade of glamour. It was different; it was fantasy. I also knew I could never do a 9-to-5 desk job. I didn’t know clearly at the time that I was going to be doing this, but it all makes sense.
I ended up going to FIDM in San Francisco. I was a Visual Merchandising major. Then I met somebody who knew a producer in Los Angeles. I interned on my first low-budget movie shot out in the desert. That was it; I was done. I had found my home.
Frocktalk: Do you still go thrifting?
CM: I’m still obsessed. It’s the thrill of the hunt. You know when you’re at Out of the Closet and there’s a ton of colorful ties. And you find a beautiful Valentino tie with red cherries on it from the ‘70s. And it’s $2. I love that! I always have.
Big thanks to Lauren Fonville for the awesome interview!! Watch DRUNK HISTORY on Comedy Central, Tuesdays at 10PM E/P – Enjoy, everyone!